Chinua Achebe’s "Things Fall Apart" achieves the paradoxical effect of enabling African tribal life to be accessible to western society while simultaneously excluding it. Brians (Washington State University, 2002) states that ‘its most striking feature is to create a complex and sympathetic portrait of a traditional village culture in Africa’. To label the novel, or its protagonist as limited, would be to disregard the many levels on which the novel exists. On the contrary, Achebe aims to prove, among other things, that the inhabitants of Africa are not as limited as the stereotype constructed by European and other western societies. The protagonist of the story, Okonkwo, depicts the complexities and struggles that all humans must attempt to deal with, and provides a worthy and interesting account of the human psyche.
It is important to consider that ‘the reader’s concern’ is too general; and that response to the story will be in each reader’s individual perspective. The way in which readers will view Okonkwo and his tribe will depend on what level they choose to read the story at, and how they ‘read between the lines’. An important aspect of the novel is what Achebe chooses not to say.
In ‘Things fall apart’ Achebe aims to show that Africa is not the ‘uncivilized, simple country’ that it may be portrayed as by other cultures. It aims to enable readers to understand the tribe and assists the reader to think about the reasoning behind the beliefs that may be viewed as odd or illogical. Okonkwo and the people of Obi are limited; but no more than the rest of the human population. We are all limited by what we know and what we perceive of everything else. What Achebe aims to do, though, is not to prove that African society makes sense and is ‘right’, but that it is not limited in its contemplation and reasoning. ‘Achebe is trying… to remind his own people of their past and to assert that it had contained much of value. All too many Africans in his time were ready to accept the European judgment that Africa had no history or culture worth considering’ (Brians, 1994). While Achebe is an example of a person who stood up for his country’s beliefs, he believed that many Africans were nevertheless persuaded that western values were still superior to their own. An example of the Africans’ struggle between their own culture and the European culture can be seen in examining Okonkwo, the main character.
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‘Things Fall Apart’ is not necessarily about the past. It is about the human struggle. Achebe tells the story in such a way that the time and place is very accessible to readers. Though his aim is to show that Africans are not the uncivilized people they were portrayed as, it can be said that this aspect of the story merely accompanies the true story, which is that of Okonkwo’s.
Okonkwo grasps the readers’ attention because Achebe has portrayed him as a real and complex person, rather than a limited stereotype of what may be considered to constitute a male member of an African tribe. Okonkwo struggles with his fears and often contradicts himself in his attitudes and behavior. He is a paradox because sometimes he will take risks in order to defend his beliefs, and other times he will not. For example, consider the time when the priestess took Ezinma to see Agbala, a God. Okonkwo defies the rules of his tribe to follow his daughter and his wife and ensure their safety, even though this is at direct odds with the wishes of Agbala and could result in a brutal punishment. However, he assists in the murder of Ikemefuna so the other tribe members will not think he is weak. It is odd that despite the Ibo peoples’ unimaginable fear of the Gods, Okonkwo seems more afraid of his fellow humans. It indicates how complex Okonkwo is. At the end of the story he is determined to defend the future of his tribe, but it could be considered that he does this in fear. Perhaps he fears what would have happened had he not committed suicide. The fact that he craves pride and acceptance more from his fellow humans than the Gods, who have far more power, shows that perhaps he was already wavering from the beliefs of the tribe. Killing the white man was a last, desperate attempt to gain this acceptance and persuade himself that he was still an important part of the tribe. Far from limited, Okonkwo displays the true paradoxical complexity of a human person. His psyche is intriguing because it has been opened up for readers to explore; something which cannot be done so honestly with any actual human being.
It is easy for a reader to observe that Okonkwo is often consumed by his fears, many of which are aimed towards himself. However; it is what Achebe does not say, that must be focused on. The fact that Okonkwo is so afraid implies in itself that there are a number of levels to his mentality; many of which he does not want to admit to himself. Okonkwo attempts to control his own actions, words and thoughts. By striving to ‘be the best’ and trying to focus his thoughts on only this, we can see what he is pushing away- resistance. If his beliefs waver from that of his tribe’s, he may slant towards completely opposing views. It is his craving for acceptance from his peers that pushes him to block out these differing views, focusing and ‘believing’ in what is ‘right’. Even if Achebe does not emphasize these deeper levels of his main character, the fact that he acknowledges Okonkwo’s efforts to eliminate them, shows that they exist.
It is plausible that if a reader was to find the Ibo society a ‘limited’ society; they would in turn believe Okonkwo is limited, despite this being at direct odds with Achebe’s aim. It is because of this that he has attempted to show some of the similarities between Ibo culture and western society; so readers are more likely to understand the method behind the actions.
The beliefs and opinions that everyone forms are influenced by their surroundings; and people often see their own ‘way of life’ as the right way. Humanity is not known for being particularly open-minded. We are all limited by our own beliefs and ideas.
A Christian who is a strong believer in Jesus might find the notion of reincarnation ridiculous, because they ‘know’ that God is real. ‘You carve a piece of wood… and call it a God. But it is still a piece of wood’ (Achebe 1958: 127). This is a reasonable point, and emphasizes the argument that may possibly be in many readers’ minds at this point. In Christianity it is forbidden to worship material things; and ‘Mr. Brown’ makes the point that by carving the piece of wood from the tree, they are literally creating a ‘God’, rather than worshipping one that ‘already existed’. It is a point that could be used as evidence towards the limitations of the tribe. However; Achebe defends the tribe’s beliefs, and illustrates a convincing argument.
The Obi people argue that the wood came from the tree that was made by ‘Chukwu’, their main God, who is similar to the Christian God. They explain that the people contact ‘Chukwu’ through his minor Gods. The point is made that the Christian God also has his ‘messengers’ on Earth- such as those people considered a Christian authority, such as the Pope. Achebe discusses that this religion is very similar to Christianity. By discussing the similarities between the Obi religion and Christianity, readers are likely to be less skeptical and relate more to the beliefs of the Obi people, or at least understand the logic behind them.
While the story may be considered to be a ‘timeless’ story; in that it is one depicting the human struggle, western society may also view the Ibo culture as limited because it is set in the past. Because the people of Umuofia do not understand ‘bloating’, they simply take people suffering with it to the evil forest and leave them for dead. To them, this may seem perfectly logical. But because of today’s increasing knowledge of medicine and illness, people of western society know that this is unnecessary and curable.
It cannot be denied that western society has progressed technologically far more than an African tribe. However, while this may be true, it can be considered that they are more advanced in other areas. When a tribe member dies, the Ibo people have two funerals. The first funeral is at the time the person initially dies, and the second is when others have had time to emotionally deal with the death, and can perform an honorable funeral. This is a logical system, as it considers those loved ones left behind and also the worth of the dead person. However, the idea of two funerals in western society would be considered ludicrous and perhaps grief-prolonging, although it seems both reasonable and sensible to all concerned. At points in the novel it seems that Achebe stresses this aspect of the western and European society.
Achebe wrote the story in order to discourage the white and western population from being racist and prejudiced towards Africans. However, he seems to show these characteristics towards the European population, and often portray them as limited; as a type of reverse discrimination. He parodies ‘pigeon-english’ in the speech of the white Europeans, who can’t speak the native language, claiming that it is an answer to the way Africans are often portrayed in their speech of the English language. The tribe also sends up the English language, describing it as ‘noise’. Though Achebe does attempt to show some level of objectivity, his attitude towards the European culture can be said to undermine the true meaning of his novel and may border on hypocrisy.
To read ‘Things Fall Apart’ at a surface level would be to determine that Okonkwo and his tribe were both limited and simple. However; an examination of Okonkwo’s character shows that his ‘limitations’ actually indicate that he is both complex and fearful, and that there is more depth to his words, actions and thoughts than written in the novel. It is this aspect of the novel’s protagonist that indicate how truly intriguing a character he is. While the beliefs of Okonkwo and his tribe differ very much to that of western culture, Achebe portrays them in a way that assists the readers in understanding the reasoning behind them. It could be said that Ibo society and western society surpass each other in various areas; and this fact must be recognized- that the Ibo culture is at an equal level with western culture, and not the inferior society it has been portrayed to be in the past. Achebe did not simply want to tell a story- he wanted to make a statement.
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